In India, caste is serious matter. If you are a Hindu, you cannot change your religion and you cannot change your caste: you are born a Hindu and you are born into a caste. Caste decides the work you and your parents do. An ‘untouchable’ (now called Dalit: in Hindi Dalit means ‘downtrodden’) will usually be engaged in caste-ordained occupations that are ‘unclean.’ The highest caste, the Brahmin, will be employed in reading and writing-associated ventures. The Kshatriya and the Vaishya (the two intermediate castes) are warrior and business castes respectively.
In the last 60 or so years, the Indian political establishment has tried to create a system of social equity through state-sponsored policies of affirmative action. Like all affirmative action, this too has led to entrenched interests that bridle at the suggestion of any rollback, and are also constantly on the look-out for new ways to protect turf.
The question of whether the exercise to enumerate Indian citizens — the census — currently underway should include a column on caste has proved to be a potentially divisive one, precisely for these reasons. Earlier this month, parliament saw several parties — including the Communist ones — seek a caste column in the census. This would indicate the percentage of the population of a particular caste and the chance that more benefits could be wrested from the system by way of jobs, seats in government-run educational institutions, etc.
However, the principal opposition party, the BJP has strongly resisted this. Although the BJP has a strong presence among some intermediate castes that benefit from job-reservation, its argument is that its core supporter — the upper caste Hindu — will lose out if India’s caste configuration is refined and spelt out further.
The net result is that the whole issue has been referred to a group of ministers that will take a view on whether caste should be included in census. If the current indications are correct and this does, indeed, happen, political parties are bound to get active in devising ways to leverage this latest, new device to expand membership and support base. In many parts of India, caste exists even among religions that do not countenance it. There are Dalit Christians and high caste Muslims in many parts of India. Demands have been voiced that benefits for the socially oppressed should apply to them as well. This has always caused the Hindu establishment to retort that no religion but Hinduism recognises caste so how can caste-based affirmative action transcend religion. But the census result could change this. The census exercise is a long one but it will give some indication as to the trends in demography. Once politics enters the process, India could be racked by another round of social unrest by disadvantaged groups seeking a piece of the development pie, and those already enjoying the pie, refusing to share it.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 30, 2010.